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South Carolina Governor Robert Y. Hayne on the Nullification Crisis
Digital History ID 355

Author:   Governor Robert Y. Hayne


In Congress, Henry Clay, the "great compromiser" who had engineered the Compromise of 1820, worked feverishly to reduce South Carolina's sense of grievance. In less than a month he persuaded Congress to enact a compromise tariff with lower levels of protection.

Although South Carolina regarded Jackson's forceful actions as "the mad rages of a driveling dotard," the state legislature backed down, rescinding the ordinance nullifying the federal tariff. As a final gesture of defiance, however, the state adopted an ordinance nullifying the Force Act.

In 1831 and 1832, South Carolina stood alone. No other southern state yet shared its fear of federal power or its militant desire to assert the doctrine of states' rights. South Carolina's anxiety had many causes. Declining cotton prices (from 31 cents a pound in 1818 to 8 cents a pound in 1831) and a growing concern about the future of slavery transformed the state from a supporter of economic nationalism into the nation's most aggressive advocates of states' rights. Increasingly, economic grievances fused with concerns over slavery. In 1832 the Palmetto State was one of just two states whose population was made up of a majority of slaves (Mississippi was the other). Events throughout the hemisphere made South Carolinians desperately uneasy about slavery's future. In 1831 and 1832 militant abolitionism had erupted in the North, slave insurrections had erupted in Southampton County, Virginia, and in Jamaica, and Britain was moving to emancipate all the slaves in the British Caribbean.

By using the tariff as a focus of their grievances, South Carolina found an ideal way to debate the question of state sovereignty without debating the morality of slavery. Following the Missouri Compromise debates, in 1822, a slave insurrection led by Denmark Vesey, a free black who was familiar with antislavery speeches made in Congress during the Missouri debates, was uncovered in Charleston. In 1832, South Carolinians did not want to stage debates in Congress that might bring the explosive slavery issue to the fore and possibly incite another slave revolt.

A leading South Carolina newspaper reprinted the inaugural address of Governor Robert Y. Hayne (1791-1839), which presented the state's view of the nullification crisis.


In the great struggle in which we engaged, for the preservation of our rights and liberties, it is my fixed determination to assert and uphold the SOVEREIGN AUTHORITY OF THE STATE, and to enforce by all the means that may be entrusted to my hands, her SOVEREIGN WILL. I recognize no ALLEGIANCE, as paramount to that which the citizens of South Carolina, owe to the State of their birth, or their adoption....

South Carolina, after ten years of unavailing petitions and remonstrances, against a system of measures on the part of the Federal Government, which in common with the other Southern States--she has repeatedly declared, to be founded in USURPATION, utterly subversive of the rights, and fatal to the prosperity of her people,--has in the face of the world PUT HERSELF UPON HER SOVEREIGNTY, and made the solemn declaration that this system shall no longer be enforced within her limits. All hope of a redress of this grievance, from a returning sense of justice on the part of our oppressors, or from any probable change in the policy of the Government, having fled, nothing was left for South Carolina, but to throw herself upon her reserved rights, or to remain for ever in a condition of "Colonial vassalage." She has, therefore, resolved to stand upon her rights, and it is for her sister States, now, to determine, what is to be done in this emergency. She has announced to them her anxious desire that this controversy shall be amicably adjusted, either by a satisfactory modification of the Tariff, or by a reference of the whole subject to a convention of all the States. Should neither of these reasonable propositions be acceded to, then she will feel herself justified before God and Man, in firmly maintaining the position she has assumed, until some other mode can be devised, for the removal of the difficulty. South Carolina is anxiously desirous of living at peace with her brethren; she has not the remotest wish to dissolve the political bonds which have connected her with the great American family of Confederated States. With Thomas Jefferson, "she would regard the dissolution of our Union with them, as one of the greatest of evils--but not the greatest,--there is one greater: SUBMISSION TO A GOVERNMENT WITHOUT LIMITATION OF POWERS;" and such a government she conscientiously believes will be our portion, should the system against which she is now struggling, be finally established as the settled policy of the country. South Carolina is solicitous to preserve the Constitution as our fathers framed it--according to its true spirit, intent, and meaning, but she is inflexibly determined never to surrender her reserved rights, not to suffer the Constitutional compact to be converted into an instrument for the oppression of her citizens....

A confederacy of sovereign states, formed by the free consent of all, cannot possibly be held together, by any other tie than mutual sympathies and common interest. The unhallowed attempt to cement the union with the blood of our citizens, (which if successful would reduce the free and sovereign States of this confederacy to mere dependent provinces) South Carolina has solemnly declared, would be regarded by her, as absolving her "from all further obligation to maintain or preserve her political connexion with the people of the other States." The spirit of our free institutions, the very temper of the age, would seem to forbid the thought of an appeal to force, for the settlement of a constitutional controversy. If, however, we should be deceived in this reasonable expectation--South Carolina, so far as her means extend, stands prepared to meet danger, and repel invasion, come from what quarter it may....

If after making those efforts due to her own honor and the greatness of the cause, she is destined utterly to fail, the bitter fruits of that failure, [will fall] not to herself alone, but to the entire South, nay to the whole union.... The speedy establishment, on the ruins of the rights of the states, and the liberties of the people, of a great CONSOLIDATED GOVERNMENT, "riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry" [Jefferson's words] of our once happy land--our glorious confederacy, broken into scattered and dishonored fragments--the light of liberty extinguished, never perhaps to be resumed--these--these will be the melancholy memorials of that wisdom, which saw the danger while yet at a distance, and of that patriotism, which struggled gloriously to avert it....

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Columbia Telescope Extra, December 13, 1832

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